For love of the game

With his baseball career over, Dan Plesac can now concentrate full-time on what has always been his other passion -- training race horses.

Updated: January 21, 2004, 11:57 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

There's little doubt that Dan Plesac had at least one more year in him, even if he is about to turn 42. The 2003 season was just about his best since he was a dominant closer for the Milwaukee Brewers back in the late eighties. Opposing batters managed to hit only a meek .228 against him and his ERA was 2.70. There's plenty of demand out there for a steady left-handed set-up guy with veteran poise and good numbers.

But Plesac's career officially came to an end Dec. 11 when he informed the Philadelphia Phillies he was retiring. It wasn't necessarily that he didn't want to pitch anymore, but the rigors of keeping an over-40 body in prime athletic shape, combined with the demands that continual travel put on his family led the father of two to decide to walk away while he still could contribute to his team.

The fact that his second love lay waiting not far away made his decision that much easier.

With his baseball career over, Plesac can now concentrate full-time on what has always been his other passion. The newest standardbred trainer in the Midwest has 10 horses, his own farm, a desire to learn and a 93 mile-per-hour fastball.

"This is all I've really wanted to do my entire life," Plesac said. "I always hoped to have a career that would lead me to be secure enough to train and have my own horses. The first half of my dream came true with my baseball career."

Plesac broke into the major leagues in 1986 with the Brewers and was among the best closers in the American League over the next several years, making the All-Star team three times. In 1991, he was converted to the set-up role and continued to be a reliable pitcher while bouncing around with the Cubs, Pirates, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Phillies. Plesac's career ended with 65 wins, 158 saves and 1,064 appearances.

But long before he pitched in his first professional game, he had been bitten by the harness racing bug. His family had always been involved in the sport as owners and breeders and one of their first horses, Baby Hoey, won nearly $100,000 in the seventies, when $100,000 was still a lot of money.

Throughout his baseball career he retained his avid interest in harness racing and owned a bunch of horses in the early and mid-nineties. He wishes he had owned at least one more. A friend of Plesac's, Richard Balog, named a trotter after him and gave the pitcher three chances to buy half the horse, but Plesac turned him down every time. The trotter Plesac went on to earn $2.5 million.

That little bit of misfortune didn't do a thing to dampen his enthusiasm for the sport. As his body started to ache a little bit more and the stress of spring training became a little more taxing, he began to seriously consider switching sports.

"I felt, mentally and physically, that it was becoming such a grind," he said. "In your late thirties, being an athlete suddenly becomes such a grind. It's a lot more work, a lot more demanding."

But even toward the end of the 2003 season he was still having a tough time making up his mind about his future. He was still pitching well and was playing for a good team that will kick off the 2004 season as a serious World Series contender. He was hoping for some outside help.

"For the last three or four years, I've been waiting for someone or somebody to give me the answer I was looking for," he said. "I was hoping an airplane would fly by with a sign which would say, 'Dan: hang it up,' or 'Dan: go one more year.'"

At last, he got what he wanted. Against the Braves on Sept. 28, which was the Phillies' last game of the season and the last game ever played at Veterans Stadium, manager Larry Bowa asked him if he wanted to come in and get the final out ever at the Vet.

"I was kind of taken aback," he said. "I took the mound with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and this huge silence ran through my body. I just knew it was going to be the last guy. And I knew if I struck the guy out, it was baseball's way of telling me it was time to go."

He went to a 3-2 count on rookie Ryan Langerhans before striking him out swinging. His decision had been made.

"Since I announced to the Phillies that I was retiring, I haven't thought, 'Did I do the right thing?'" he said. "It was time for me after 18 years and 1,064 games."

Less than a week after his retirement became official, he was at Maywood Park passing his trainer's test. After putting the toil of major league baseball behind, he's not anxious to tackle a demanding schedule in harness racing. Instead, Plesac's 3 Up 3 Down Farm will remain a modest operation. Of the10 horses he owns, he intends to train six from his base in Indiana, while turning the others over to other trainers.

"This is a very difficult business and training horses is a very difficult job," he said. "I want to start at the bottom and get a feel for what I need to do. Hopefully, I'll be able to develop a nice horse myself."

Phillies pitchers and catchers report in about a month to their spring training home in Clearwater, Florida. On the same day, Plesac will be a rookie trainer in a barn in frigid Indiana with a bunch of young horses who may or may not turn out to be any good. And he will know he did the right thing.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com